Archive for March, 2013
The nineteenth-century mathematician Bernhard Riemann once said, “I did not invent those pairs of differential equations. I found them in the world, where God had hidden them.” When I stumble across metaphors in the course of writing, it feels much more like discovery than creating; the words and images seem to be choosing me, and not the other way around. And when I manipulate them in the interest of hospitality, in order to make a comprehensible work of art, I have to give up any notion of control.
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.217
I think this is why with many arts across the board, be it poetry, composing music, writing, painting, etc. many of the very best works come from the people with a really high output. Not everything they produce is great – in fact much of it is mediocre, but their output is huge. What are they doing? They are not fabricating new things out of thin air hoping some of them turn out beautiful. No, rather they are more like a scientists working in a lab, carefully researching the chemical properties of a material. They find out what works and what doesn’t by lots of experimentation, lots of trial and error, lots of repetitions and tests. They are discovering beauty and meaning and power that was ALREADY THERE through their relentless research.
Do these two words go together with this metaphor and provoke an emotional response and connection to this idea over here? No. Hmm, how about these words? How about these. Well, I tried a hundred different ones and didn’t quite find what I was hoping for, but I learned some other pretty good combinations in the process. Maybe they’ll come in handy later. Just keep writing. Just keep working.
Hildegard von Bingen took [singing] so seriously as a gift God made to humanity that in one of her plays, while the soul and all the Virtues sing, the devil alone has a speaking part. The gift of song has been denied him.
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.331
This immediately reminded me of George MacDonald’s portrayal of the goblin race in The Princess and Curdie and other stories. He mentions on several occasions how much the the goblins hated singing and always adds that “probably” they hate it so much because they cannot sing themselves.
Contrast this with what Christian rock music pioneer Larry Norman said – “Why does the devil get all the good music?”. It seems today that we often assume the devil sings pretty darn well. But I think it’s still people that are singing, however righteous or twisted their hearts may be. Demonology is dicey business, but my money is still on the devil being completely tone deaf.
Aquinas taught us that even evil has good in it. For example, it was still good and marvelous how the blood flowed through Hitler’s veins even as he plotted evil. The workings of the human mind are still “good” even as they are bent toward destruction. So the devil seems to be fairly successful at recruiting musicians to his devices, but the saints still drive him actually crazy with their own singing. You may recall that this same sort of singing is what drove Grendel out of his distant dark cave as well. He wanted to shut them up. Like as to his master, the sound of proper praise or even just celebration was intolerable.
Let me posit that as we all gather together as Christians, be it in small families or large groups, we should always be singing. Let us not just listen, but also open our mouths and breath out. Can’t do it well? Who cares – do it anyway. Learn to hack it. It’s worth it. And if you sing well, don’t allow your voice to be hijacked.
It’s a bit hard to write this somewhat negative review since I actually really enjoyed the book, especially the first half. Her first memoir, Dakota (which I picked up on a whim at a used book store a few years ago) was surprisingly great. The Cloister Walk takes place a few years later and recounts the year she spent in a Benedictine monastery.
It makes complete sense that Norris finds living casually in a cloister to be a sublime and positive experience. She’s relatively wealthy and financially well-off without the need to work on a day-to-day basis and hold down a job to pay the bills. She has no children to care for, not even grown children or grandchildren to visit. She isn’t even tied down by her husband who is distant and independent, often living in foreign countries for a year or more at a time without her. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that her memoirs frequently glamorize and defend the monastic life. The defense is welcomed, but the other not so much. She might have learned a lot in her 9 months in the monastery and it’s often delightful when she shares what she has discovered. Still, she isn’t constricted by vows and frequently has to leave for a weekend to jet off to Hawaii or Manhattan to take care of business. I dare say that if she had been truly stuck there, like all the other residents, she might have written a different book.
Norris is highly critical of the anti-liturgical, anti-intellectual, and anti-art culture produced by much of America protestantism (often rightly so in my opinion), but the problem is that she isn’t in a position to appreciate or even recognize the motivation behind the theology and ecclessiology that has driven the reformation in the past and the evangelicism of our current time. She’s smart, she’s well-read, she’s poetic and gracious and observant and interesting and a skilled writer. But she’s no theologian, or shepherd, or mother, and frankly, sometimes she just doesn’t get it.
This is ultimately why I am far more inclined to listen to words of wisdom from Fr. Robert Capon. His approach to the beauty of creation and his appreciation of liturgy are remarkably similar to that or Norris. The difference is that he raised six children and pastored a flock for thirty years – living in one house with his wife for nearly his whole life. One side-effect of this is that he never takes himself too seriously. Fortunately, Norris usually doesn’t either and so she is still often enjoyable.. I would still highly recommend her work, especially to someone jaded by religion in their youth. I have one of her later books on my to-read stack. I’m optimistic.
Culture critic and editor Ken Myers, in a recent lecture on music recounted a story of visiting a consumer electronics store with his son some years ago. They walked in the door and past the stereo equipment for sale which was blasting pop music. His teenage son stopped and asked emphatically, “Why does it have to be so loud?” Fast-forward ten years (just this past year), he walks into the same store and in the audio section is a kiosk warning customers of the dangers of hearing loss from listening to music too loud. In particular it warns that the average rock concert will damage one’s ears if they attend without proper hearing protection.
Myers then goes on to ask, “What can we say about a society in which our typical musical habits eliminate the possibility of ever hearing music again? It’s like sex that makes you impotent our food that causes you to lose your sense of taste when you eat it.” It doesn’t make any sense. Something is wrong. The rest of the lecture is very interesting, but I don’t actually want to talk about that right now.
He mentions sex in passing to contrast the point about music, but I think that we are, as a society, engaging in sex that does, in fact, lead to impotence. This is really going on right now.
Ten years ago my inbox (like yours I’m sure) was flooded with spam for cheap Viagra. For an older man trying to fight the effects of age and get his mojo back, that seems natural. It’s not too different than an old women getting a face lift to feel a bit better about her appearance, or even someone getting a hip replacement so they can continue to live an active life. In the past few years though, I’ve seen a significant shift in my spam, and even in advertising on the radio and in stores. The thing now is testosterone-boosting supplements, not for older men, but for younger men! But young guys don’t need drugs to help get it up, do they? At what point in history has anyone needed that? Dave Barry has commented that teenage girls will get pregnant simply from standing down-wind from teenage boys. They don’t need to steal grandpa’s Viagra. Why all the targeted advertising at men in their late twenties and early thirties? What on earth is their problem?
Their problem is, put simply, consuming high amounts of pornography. There’s nothing wrong with their circulatory system or their prostrate. Rather reality cannot contain the impossible desires they have cultivated. They’ve consumed so much porn that they find they can no longer become properly aroused even in the presence of unclothed women they actually have access to, be it their wives, girlfriends, or even booty-call-enabling acquaintances. Ingesting substantial amounts of pornography leads to the feeding and growth of impossible desires which frequently result in intense dissatisfaction, impotence, and despair.
The wisdom literature in scripture alludes to this on several occasions. Here is probably the best known passage:
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
(Proverbs 5:18-19, ESV)
“The wife of your youth”. That’s past tense – many years have gone by. She caught your eye when she was 22 – lively and slender and attractive in all the ways a young women naturally is to a man. But now she’s 52 and you even more so. Is she still beautiful? Is she still arousing? Of course, but in different ways. A fifty-year old women is lovely in predominantly different ways than she was at twenty – many of them not overtly sexual. You need to learn what they are by sticking with her and wanting to discover what they are. By eighty this will have changed again.
If loving a person is anything, it is learning to adapt to change. You change. She changes. Perhaps she stays in relatively good health. Perhaps she gets cancer. Maybe you are running a triathlon in your retirement. Maybe you are in a wheelchair. Hopefully both of your personalities have been softened with kindness and your immaturities, be they laziness or petty gossip, have been rooted out. Your sex life must change too. Not wanting to hop in the sack all the time is not a debilitating disease, but rather of the same sort of phenomenon as growing gray hair. It’s only defined as a disease in a world that gives its vibrancy and expression far, far too much weight.
For now I want to set aside moral questions of lust and ethical questions of the abuse of women behind the scenes of the porn industry. The former has been addressed so often that no one, not even those in the choir, are listening much anymore. The later, led by recent efforts to expose the evils of child trafficking around the world, have – I think – more potential to affect change. But forget all that for a moment.
What are we young men doing by imbibing a diet of perpetually young models prancing around on our computer screens? What are you doing by steadily arousing yourself in this way? You grow older but the girls stay young. They are trapped in a timewarp while you age. Those beauties on that Tumblr feed – they could be from a photo shoot in the eighties. Those girls could be a older than your mom by now. Darwinists love to point out that it’s completely natural to be attracted by a young fertile member of the opposite sex. True indeed. Completely natural and by design – when you yourself are a young and fertile member yourself. But tomorrow that won’t be the case. Pretending like it still is will make tomorrow increasingly frustrating.
Everywhere today you see the word “sustainable” or “sustainability”. We are often reminded that we can’t keep burning through our coal and oil reserves forever – we need a sustainable source of energy. Keep working that factory job and your fragile wrists are going to be destroyed by carpel tunnel syndrome. To stay on the job for the next decade you are going to have to find a different sort of work. A lot of us discovered in our thirties that eating 4000 calories a day isn’t sustainable either. So how does one have a sustainable sex life? Your libido must adapt. Adapt to what? To your own body and to that of your wife. And as you live closely together with your wife and grow older together, this WILL naturally happen. But consuming pornography throws a big monkey wrench into all of this. It cultivates a taste for young forbidden flesh. It reinforces notions of beauty that are either altogether false (impossibly skinny airbrushed features, surgically enhanced breasts, etc.), or at the very least not available to you anymore. That time has past.
Want to boost your love life? Don’t take the testosterone-boosting supplement and hit the singles bar. That will only barely help in the short term. Keep doing it and pretty soon it will cease to work at all. If you are poor or middle-class you’ll end up a bitter and frustrated basket-case, lashing out at those around you in various ways. If you’re lucky it will only take the form of what psychologist Larry Crabb calls “depleted foolishness”. If you happen to be rich, you are likely to implode ala Charlie Sheen. So how do you actually boost your love life? The 40-day juice cleanse won’t do it. Try the 40-day porn purge. And then follow that up with the 400-day porn purge. Turn off the TV and learn to love what you already have.
Brown eyed girl across the street
On rue Saint Divine
I thought this is the one for me
But she was already mine
You were already mine…
(from the U2 song, A Man and a Women)
Don’t eat food so hot it burns your tongue. Don’t listen to music so loud it breaks your ears. Don’t touch overblown sexual fantasy. To be healthy, your desire has to take the shape of your reality – your own body, your own age, and your own soundness. Then sexual experience remains the receiving of an acceptable gift instead of a frustrated grasping. The same goes for your other desires, be they career ambitions or even desiring the success and safety of your children. Cultivate contentment rather than grasping.
We say in our anger (or perhaps we title it “repression”) that “He has not given me the gift I wanted. I really need THAT gift over there”. But it turns out you only want that something else because you want to BE someone else. He gives us exactly what we need. It’s a perfect gift. Cursed, yes! But the curse will shortly be removed and you redeemed.
I’m not a Roman Catholic myself, but I certainly consider them my brothers and sisters and so I am following the election of the new Pope that started today. I was sad to see B16 go. He was a straight-shooter and a smart cookie. I’m glad he decided to retire though rather than be too weak to lead for the next (who knows?) ten years.
My vote for the new guy? Peter Turkson from Ghana. I know he’s a long-shot, but I think a black African pope would be pretty cool. His election would silence many centuries of criticism. From what I’ve read of the guy, he seems to have his head on right. He also speaks six languages – not too shabby. Still, I think we’ll probably have to wait another generation or two before we see something like that happen. A Pope from Latin America would probably be more appropriate right now. I’d cheer for that too.
When I go out of the house to write, I often find myself people-watching instead. Distracting, yes, but still sufficiently interesting to write about. I’ve done this several times before. Here is some more!
What do people do at coffee shops? Talk to people on their cell phones who aren’t there at the shop with them. There ARE people with them, but they don’t speak to each other. They only speak to their friends who aren’t there with them – likely setting up times when they can get together for coffee and talk on the phone to the person they are actually at the shop with right now.
Walk inside the cafe. Spot two local mothers who don’t believe in spanking their kids. Their children are tearing the place apart while they try to talk them out of their destructive frenzy in sugary voices. Walk right back out the door.
People all around are having VERY personal conversations. Some are ridiculously loud. Others are so quite I have to strain to catch a scrap of their gossip. The second sort is OK with me. The other, shameful, and apparently oblivious.
Smokers make for strange fellows. Balding middle-aged guy with the grey jacket would not in a million years converse with the young girl in the mini skirt. Not at work, not at a party, not at church or anywhere else they might show up. But they’ve gotta have a smoke and they’ve gotta stand 20 feet away from the door and there they are for most of Friday night.
I spied this much lesser-known Lewis title in the library stacks the other day and decided to give it a shot. A subtitle could be “In which Jack shows how he is ten times more well-read than you are”. He quotes freely from a hundred different sources, ancient and modern and one gets little sense that he is looking them all up at a reference desk; the pace is too fast. I actually found the book a pretty difficult read late at night as it was mostly technical. Still, it made me think about language in some ways I hadn’t before and for that it was worth it. A few of the passages I marked are probably worth a whole blog post, but I don’t feel up for that now. Instead, here are the passages I found the most interesting with a few comments.
After hearing one chapter of this book when it was still a lecture, a man remarked to me ‘you have made me afraid to say anything at all’. I know what he meant. Prolonged thought ABOUT the words which we oridnarily use to think WITH can produce a momentary aphasia. I think it is to be welcomed. It is well we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.
I feel exactly this way about writing about any topic. At some point you just have to DO IT or you’ll spend forever learning and have no output.
In this next passage, Lewis puts his finger right on one of the key ways in which our language deteriorates.
The greatest cause of verbicide (the murder of a word) is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative – uselesss synonyms for good and for bad. We shall see this happening to the word villain in a later chapter. Rotten, paradoxically has become so completely a synonym for ‘bad’ that we now have to say bad when we mean ‘rotten’.
In its strict theological sense, the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ presents little difficulty. When any agent is empowered by God to do that of which its own kind or nature would never have made it capable, it is said to act super-naturally, above its nature. The story in which Balaam’s ass speaks is a story of the supernatural because speech is not a characteristic of asinine nature. When Isaiah saw the seraphim he saw supernaturally because human eyes are not by their own nature qualified to see such things. Of course examples of the supernatural need not be, like these, spectacular. Whatever a man is enabled to receive or do by divine grace, and not by the exercise of his own nature, is supernatural. Hence, ‘joy, peace and delight’ (of a certain sort) can be described by Hooker as ‘supernatural passions’.
I only wrote this down because I had not considered the fact that it was supernatural that Isaiah could see the seraphim. He wasn’t just in the right place at the right time, but was given something beyond the natural.
Here Lewis pokes a bit of fun at the “nature” poets.
This does not at all mean that the poets are talking nonsense. They are expressing a way of looking at things which must arise when towns become very large and the urban way of life very different from the rural. When this happens most people (not all) feel a sense of relief and restoration on getting out into the country; it is a serious emotion and a recurrent one, a proper theme for high poetry. Philosophically, no doubt, it is superficial to say we have escaped from the works of man to those of Nature when in fact, smoking a man-made pipe and swinging a man-made stick, wearing our man-made boots and clothes, we pause on a man-made bridge to look down on the banked, arrowed, ad deepended river which man has made out of the original wide, shallow and swampy mess, and across it, at a landscape which has only its larger geological features in common with that which would have existed if man had never interfered. But we are expressing something we really feel. The wider range of vision has something to do with it; we are seeing MORE of nature (in a good many senses) than we could in a street.
Everyone starts telling us what the word does NOT mean; a sure proof that it is beginning to mean just that.
This is a great quote and 100% true. I think sometimes we need to go with the flow and stop spending so much time defining our terms. The fewer words we use that don’t need to be defined, the more readily our audience will be able to assimilate it. Scholarly works are another matter of course, but talk to commoners should not be a tour de’ lexicon.
When someone has to prefix something with “true”, then watch out for a twist of meaning.
The tell-tale word is ‘true’. No one describes as ‘true happiness’ the life we all enjoy; it is just ‘happiness’. No one who is being agreeable calls himself our ‘true friend’; freedom and what Hevelians call ‘true freedom’ are almost mutually exclusive. If wit were the current name for the thing Pop describes, then he would have called it simply wit, not true wit. The adjective shows that he is twisting the noun into a sense it never naturally bore.
(Or I would add, does not currently bear.)
Only he who is neither legally enslaved to a master nor economically enslaved by the struggle for subsistence, is likely to have, or to have the leisure for using a piano or a library. That is how one’s piano or library is more “liberal”, more characteristic of one’s position as a freeman, that one’s coal-shovel or one’s tools.
This is how Aristotle uses “free” when talking about things.
Some drive-by KJV bashing!
Very ill-grounded ideas about the exclusive importance of the Authorized Version in the English biblical tradition are still widely held.
I found this to be funny.
The old psychologists gave man five ‘outward’, and five ‘inward’, wits (or senses). The five outward wits are what we call the five senses to-day. [The five ‘inward’ wits are “common wit”, “imagination”, “fantasy”, “estimation”, and “memory”] Sometimes they are called simply the senses, and the five inward ones are called simply the wits; hence in Shakespeare ‘my five wits nor my five senses’ (Sonnet CXLI). Which five you lose, or whether you lose all ten, when you are frightened ‘out of your wits’ or ‘out of your senses’, I don’t know; probably the inward ones.
For ‘innocent’, ‘simple’, ‘silly’, ‘ingenuous’, and Greek ‘euethes’, all illustrate the same thing – the remarkable tendency of adjectives which originally imputed great goodness, to become terms of disparagement. Give a good quality a name and that name will soon be the name of a defect. ‘Pious’ and ‘respectable’ are among the comparatively modern casualties, and ‘sanctimonious’ was once a term of praise.
This is very curious. Since Lewis writing this, “simple” has come back around to be largely a GOOD thing.
I never understood the phrase “world without end” in the liturgy either.
By an unusual archaism, the [definition of “world” and being a time period] is preserved in the Prayer Book, where it probably mystifies many church-goers. ‘World without end’ means ‘age without end’, forever. As a boy I thought that ‘before all worlds’ in the Nicene Creed meant ‘before any of the planets’. It really means ‘before all ages’, outside time, ab aeterno.
This is a really excellent short explanation of why the New Testament can be difficult to interpret sometimes. If nothing else, this should be a warning not to read too much into detailed word studies – cross references may be imaginary.
The New Testament writers themselves do not consistently use “kosmos” for the one conception and “aion” for the other. They were not consciously collaborating in the production of a work. They worked far apart in place and time and there was no question of meeting to hammer out an agreed terminology. And none was writing his native language. They wrote the sort of Greek which scholars have called the koine, a deracinated [torn up] and internationalised Greek used all over the Levant for business and government. It was not a barbarous corruption like Pidgin nor a contrived language like Basic. It was more like the sort of English in which two educated Indians who had no mother-tongue in common might converse today; grammatical but unidiomatic, lacking both in nuance and in precesion, cut off from the associations of the nursery, the hearth, and also the library. The koine is the speech of people who are living linguistically from hand to mouth; grabbing at ‘any old world’ which, whoever roughly, will, at a particular moment and for a particular audience, serve the wholly practical purpose they have in view.
You can invent a new word, but the meaning probably won’t stick.
Offered a word which would have supplied a linguistic need, the French, followed by the English, preferred to use it as the name for something which had several names already. Aspiring neologists will draw the moral. Invent a word if you like. It may be adopted. It may even become popular. But don’t reckon on its retaining the sense you gave it and perhaps explained with great care. Don’t reckon on its being given a sense of the slightest utility. Smart little writers pick up words briskly; but only as a jackdaw picks up beads and glass.
To a transcendent entity of this character Plato gave the name eidos (plural eide), and we may follow him. An eidos is obviously very unlike the abstract universal of modern logic. Indeed the whole Platonic position has been judged so hopelessly alien to our mode of thought as to be dismissed with the amusing formula ‘Plato thought abstract nouns were proper names’.
You can find people still using this phrase today to dismiss Plato.
Since the young people in [D.H. Lawrance’s] Sons and Lovers never appear either to hope or fear fertility, we may assume that they have prudently taken measures to be ‘carried by life’ just so far as is convenient and no further.
Modern love seems to require modern contraceptives.
This is a damning pass with regards to “survival of the fittest”. Today, more than ever, the secular world is of two minds about this. We want to embrace evolutionary biology with one hand and outlaw eugenics with the other. We vilify the Nazi’s for their ethnic cleansing even while we set up abortion clinics for the stated purpose of cull out the black population (see essays by the founder of Planned Parenthood). He purport to be for peace while we stir up foreign wars one after another.
Though Plato did not personalize Beauty, the religious note in his language about it is unmistakable. That note becomes even louder in some modern utterances about Life (Biological). It – or she – becomes a goddess. Evolutionary biology is ‘the science of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world’. Creative Evolution is ‘the religion of the Twentieth Century’. (Shaw) This religion has its great commandment: ‘Life must not cease. That comes before everything.’ This commandment is very significant. An intense momentary conviction that one’s own life must not cease and that its preservation ‘comes before everything’ is a familiar experience; the ordinary name for it is terror. The same conviction, steadily maintained and acted upon over a long period so that it become habitual, is also familiar. The ordinary name for it is cowardice.
In contrast, Lewis argues that love is the natural state and a grasping evolutionary love of ‘life’ something contrived.
Our spontaneous desire is that some lives should be preserved (which means, if we think it out, ‘preserved at the expense of others’). But the proper name for this is love (of our friends, or class, or party, or nation, or species). We wish them to live because we love them: we do not love them because they are specimens of life. In other words, the Shavian [Evolutionary] religion must begin with a conversion, with new motives. We must turn away from all that instinct or experience has taught us to desire and learn to desire, to love ‘before evertyhing’ an invisible, unimaginable object.
This from the end of the book and is some insightful commentary on language as a medium.
Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available.
Another grave limitation of language is that it cannot, like music or gesture, do more than one thing at once. However the words in a great poet’s phrase interinanimate one another and strike the mind as a quasi-instantaneous chord, yet, strictly speaking, each word must be read or heard before the next. Hence, in narrative, the great difficulty of presenting a very complicated change which happens suddenly. If we do justice to the complexity, the time the reader must take over the passage will destroy the feeling of suddenness. If we get in the suddenness we shall not be able to get in the complexity. I am not saying that genius will not find its own ways of palliating this defect in the instrument; only that the instrument is in this way defective.
I am ashamed to remember for how many years, as a boy and a young man, I read nineteenth-century fiction without noticing how often its language differed from ours. I believe it was work on far earlier English that first opened my eyes: for there a man is not so easily deceived into thinking he understands when he does not. In the same way some report that Latin or German first taught them that English aslo has grammar and syntax. There are some things about your own village that you never know until you have been away from it.
This is why I want to learn a new language. I still am largely unaware of English grammar. I use it habitually and intuitively – evaluating what “sounds” right to my ear and my experience and comparative memory. I could maybe dissect a sentence if pressed. I have no idea what a gerund is or what an indirect object is. Seriously.
Finally, some excellent advice to young writers. I’ve heard this exact advice before in different forms, but it’s worth reading again. Good filmmakers know this stuff too.
Avoid all epithets which are merely emotional. It is no use TELLING us that something was “mysterious” or “loathsome” or “awe-inspiring” or “voluptuous”. Do you think your readers will believe you just because say so? You must go quite a different way to work. By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity of your sentences, you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim “how mysterious!” or “loathsome” or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have not need to TELL me how I should react to the flavour.